Ultra high strength silica nanowires developed at Southampton
10 January 2012
The University of Southampton’s Optoelectronics Research
Centre (ORC) has created the world's strongest silica nanofibres, which
could lead to a new generation of ultra high strength composites.
Carbon nanotubes are well known to be the strongest material
available, but high strengths can only be measured in very short
samples just a few microns long, providing little practical use.
Now research by ORC Principal Research Fellow Dr Gilberto
Brambilla and ORC Director Professor Sir David Payne has resulted in
the creation of the strongest, lightest weight silica nanofibres — ‘nanowires’
that are 15 times stronger than steel and can be manufactured in
lengths potentially of 1000’s of kilometres.
Dr Gilberto Brambilla mounting a fibre
the nanowire fabrication rig
Their findings are already generating extensive interest from
many companies around the world and could be set to transform the
aviation, marine and safety industries. Tests are currently being
carried out globally into the potential future applications for the
“With synthetic fibres it is important to have high strength,
achieved by production of fibre with extremely low defect rates, and
low weight,” says Dr Brambilla.
“Usually if you increase the strength of a fibre you have to
increase its diameter and thus its weight, but our research has
shown that as you decrease the size of silica nanofibres their
strength increases, yet they still remain very lightweight. We are
the only people who currently have optimised the strength of these
“Our discovery could change the future of composites and high
strength materials across the world and have a huge impact on the
marine, aviation and security industries. We want to investigate
their potential use in composites and we envisage that this material
could be used extensively in the manufacture of products such as
aircraft, speedboats and helicopters,” he adds.
Professor Payne explains: “Weight for weight, silica nanowires
are 15 times stronger than high strength steel and 10 times stronger
than conventional GRP (Glass Reinforced Plastic). We can decrease
the amount of material used thereby reducing the weight of the
“Silica and oxygen, required to produce nanowires, are the two
most common elements on the earth’s crust, making it sustainable and
cheap to exploit. Furthermore, we can produce silica nanofibres by
the tonne, just as we currently do for the optical fibres that power
The research findings came about following five years of
investigations by Dr Brambilla and Professor Payne using Gilberto’s
£500,000 Fellowship funding from the Royal Society.
Dr Brambilla shared his findings with fellow researchers at a
special seminar he organised recently at the Kavli Royal Society
International Centre, at Chicheley Hall, in Buckinghamshire.
“It was particularly challenging dealing with fibres that were so
small. They are nearly 1,000 times smaller than a human hair and I
was handling them with my bare hands,” says Dr Brambilla.
“It took me some time to get used to it, but using the
state-of-the-art facilities at the ORC I was able to discover that
silica nanofibres become stronger the smaller they get. In fact when
they become very, very small they behave in a completely different
way. They stop being fragile and don’t break like glass but instead
become ductile and break like plastic. This means they can be
strained a lot.
“Up until now most of our research has been into the science of
nanowires but in the future we are particularly interested in
investigating the technology and applications of these fibres,” adds
See the ORC website: